Hollywood has always had an infinite capacity for hypocrisy. But it still comes as a surprise when the entertainment industry hides behind loopholes and won‘t allow the prying eyes of its own nonprofit to monitor the welfare of all animal performers.
Yes, our moral outrage might be best reserved for those other poor dumb beings whose mauling passes for reality entertainment on The Anna Nicole Show and Big Brother III. But the true critters never signed consent forms. Since 1980, a clause in the Screen Actors Guild’s agreement with producers designates the American Humane Association‘s (AHA) film-and-television unit as the sole authority for monitoring the treatment of animals in movies, television shows, commercials and music videos. But suddenly some networks and producers are claiming reality ashows are a new genre of entertainment that contractually places them beyond the reach of AHA. When taped in the United States, reality shows like NBC’s Fear Factor can be governed by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which does not recognize AHA‘s role. When taped in foreign countries, shows like CBS’s Survivor are outside both SAG‘s and AHA’s and even AFTRA‘s control. News this week from Electronic Media that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is considering a new network devoted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the reality genre adds even more urgency to close these loopholes. The so-called Fox Reality Channel could be up and running in the United States by 2005 at the latest. But the more pervasive these shows become, the more public outcry they may draw. “The industry is the one who doesn‘t want outside censorship. But the more it doesn’t want to play by humane rules, the more it‘s opening the door for others to say this is out of control and should be legislated,” warned AHA spokeswoman Karen Rosa.
AHA is not fanatical by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, an L.A. Times story last year questioned whether AHA was too close to the industry that funds it. Which is all the more reason why AHA’s uncharacteristically strong stand on reality shows should be noticed. But CBS and Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett ignored a February 20, 2001, AHA letter of outrage over a pig slaughter on the show as “inhumane, inappropriate, and unnecessary animal cruelty . . . It matters not that as a ‘non-SAG’ production your program is not specifically required by contract to cooperate with AHA.” AHA also protested the wounding of a cow so Survivor contestants could drink its blood for sport.
AHA also is accusing NBC and Fear Factor producer Endemol Entertainment with violating Hollywood‘s accepted standards of handling animals by refusing to let AHA routinely monitor the show’s infamous animal stunts. The Weekly has learned that the Los Angeles City Attorney‘s Office wants to question NBC and Endemol about the March 11 celebrity edition. Complaints from herpetologists, veterinarians, professional reptile handlers and animal-welfare professionals poured into AHA after two bins of colubrid snakes, dumped as a writhing mass into an open plexiglass coffin, were roughly grabbed and slammed and flung by four quasi celebrities.
Bob Ferber, the assistant city attorney in charge of the 6-month-old animal-protection unit, says a “code of silence” surrounds the March 11 episode that may have violated Penal Code 597 (c) and (d), which make it a misdemeanor or felony to maliciously and intentionally maim, mutilate, torture, wound or kill a living animal, defined as “any mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian or fish,” with punishment including imprisonment in the state prison or a county jail, or a fine of up to $20,000, or both. “Nobody’s cooperating,” he told the Weekly. “Looking at the video, it‘s hard to imagine these snakes were not injured or at least suffered. At this point, we’re left with this smoking gun, but nothing else.” Ferber seems to have jurisdiction: According to NBC‘s Fear Factor Web site, Rich Brown, the Endemol producer of the animal stunts, says the coffin was placed in a “creepy location” in an old basement meat locker in downtown Los Angeles.
Pledged Ferber: “If I had the evidence to prove what happened, I would have no problems going after anyone who meets the standards of aiding and abetting. I would go as high up or as far down as I could.”
This would be acutely embarrassing to NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, the wunderkind whose Fear Factor is the linchpin of his prime-time strategy keeping NBC on top in 18-to-49 demos. That cheaply produced March 11 celebrity edition “steamrollered the competition” for ratings, as a network press release gloated. Strangely, before Zucker came to power at NBC Entertainment, AHA routinely monitored or was informed about animal use on other NBC shows. Says AHA’s Rosa: “We‘ve had terrific compliance with NBC before. That’s what‘s so exasperating about this production.” But now the network seems hell-bent on stonewalling any AHA or City Attorney’s Office investigation. NBC brass ignored an April 23, 2002, bitch letter from AHA that Karen Goschen, director of the film-and-television unit, sent to them (and all the show‘s advertisers) decrying “an attitude that is pointedly non-cooperative” and asking NBC and Endemol to meet with the City Attorney’s Office.
NBC‘s reply is to do it again: by kicking off its 2002-2003 prime-time season with a new 90-minute celebrity edition of Fear Factor on September 23. Like the March 11 show, this episode features snakes -- specifically sea serpents. “It’s so in our face,” an AHA spokeswoman complained.
An NBC spokesperson acknowledged that Fear Factor is not responsible for following the AHA guidelines, because it is an AFTRA show, and maintained that the producers “agreed to disagree” with AHA‘s complaints. “Based on discussions with producers of Fear Factor and a review of the program material, the network believes the producers have acted responsibly,” the network said in a statement for the Weekly. “NBC and Fear Factor take seriously the overall safety of both their human and animal performers and are dedicated to furthering animal welfare in the entertainment industry.”
But the controversy may soon make it harder for Fear Factor to corral even its semistars. One manager whose personality went on the show told the Weekly he would never have put his client in a situation where possible laws are being broken or liability created. And at least one charity selected by a Fear Factor celebrity is angry: the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit that rescues dogs and cats from city pounds.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.